Posted by: Leigh Ann Otte | 03/30/10

5 Novel-Writing Tips From a Reader … But Are They Right?

In an interesting twist, Laura Miller, a professional writer who’s nonetheless never written a novel, offers her tips for novelists over at I like this concept. As she says, “Readers are what every novelist really wants, so isn’t it about time that a reader offered them some advice?”

Her first two tips are right on the money. The next three, though? I’m not so sure. How ’bout you?

1. Make your main character want something.

Yes, definitely.

2. Make your main character do something.

Classic advice. Have an active protagonist.

3. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.

Mmmm … OK, I’ll take it, especially when taking into account part of her explanation:

Of course all these elements are interlinked, and in the best fiction they all contribute to and enhance each other. But if you were to eliminate these elements, starting at the end of the list and moving toward the beginning, you could still end up with a novel that lots of people wanted to read ….

But …

4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much.

Here’s where I disagree. I think most readers do recognize good writing. When a beautiful piece of prose touches their soul, they recognize it. Yes, people also devour books that aren’t written magnificently, but that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize it when they are. Nor does it mean novelists shouldn’t strive for it.

… I’ve seen as many books ruined by too much emphasis on style as by too little.

Well then, I’d argue that that isn’t such “good writing.” Just because prose is flowery or sounds, well, pretentious, doesn’t mean it’s good.

5. A sense of humor couldn’t hurt. American writers in particular are often anxious to be perceived as “serious,” which they tend to equate with a mournful solemnity. Like most attempts to appear grown-up, it just makes you look childish.

That one, I’ll have to leave alone because I’m apparently reading different books than Ms. Miller is. I gravitate toward books that do have a sense of humor. So maybe I agree with her there.

What do you think about these tips? Do they speak to you, as a writer?

I’m a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter and blogger. One of my specialties is working with doctors and other medical professionals. Read more here.

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  1. 1. Instead of making the main character do something, I would advise novelists to give the main character a powerful, meaningful opposition. Then, doing something will not be an option. If the story is flat, goose up the problem.

    2. A fan of mystery fiction and Thomas Hardy, I would emphasize setting. A novel is a journey into an alternate reality. The setting can be an interesting occupation or hobby, not necessarily just a place. The theme is vital. Without a worthy theme, a book will never work. Problem–the theme must emerge from the story rather than having the story written around it. It must be an organic result of the creative process. Otherwise, the book feels false.

    3. If “style” draws too much attention to itself because it is flowery, or pretentious, it is neither elegant nor beautiful. Grace in prose, like grace in any art form, reflects the wedding of form to function. Nabokov, Iris Murdoch, Louise Erdrich, and Anne Tyler take my breath. Only brilliant writers can write brilliantly. On the other hand, good storytellers deal out bestsellers every day. If you want to make money, plotting ability and intimate, inside knowledge of an interesting field are probably more important than stylistic gifts.

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